“Before I answer your question, I want to take an opportunity to introduce myself to the viewers because, unfortunately, we’ve only had — are going to only have one debate,” Fried said.
Fried then noted she would start her administration by calling for a housing “state of emergency,” which would give her power to address housing issues without consulting with the Legislature. After Crist replied that he would promise to fully fund the state’s affordable housing trust fund, Fried quickly noted that when Crist was governor he cut that fund by more than $500 million.
“We have a housing problem today because of your failed leadership,” she said.
That testy back-and-forth was just one of many throughout the debate and continued the line of attack Fried repeatedly used throughout the primary: That she is a better Democrat than Crist and his record as a Republican should be held against him. Crist, however, leads in the money race, most public polling and has secured a wave of endorsements as the Democratic party coalesces around him.
The debate between the two Democrats, which comes about a month before the Aug. 23 primary, offered a window into the two warring sides, pitting the younger, more progressive Fried against Crist, the established politician who has more than three decades of experience in Florida politics.
Fried, however, has gained momentum in recent weeks. After the Supreme Court overturned abortion protections enshrined in Roe v. Wade, Fried has made the issue of abortion one of her central focuses, increasingly hitting Crist over his changing positions on reproductive rights since he left the Republican Party in 2010.
“I have been pro-choice my entire life,” Fried said. “I have made sure that I’ve stood on the side of women. Charlie cannot say the same thing. He has been pro-life his entire life, including today, including that when he had the chance when he was governor, he appointed the most radical extremists into the Supreme Court.”
Crist appointed three members of the Florida Supreme Court’s conservative majority — Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston, and Jorge Labarga. Florida’s high court will likely decide whether to uphold a 15-week abortion ban passed by lawmakers during the 2022 legislative session.
Crist responded that Fried was trying to “muddy the waters” and noted he is endorsed by Democrats like state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who is vocal pro-choice member of the Legislature who used to work for Planned Parenthood.
“And let’s understand what’s going on here. You’re losing this campaign,” Crist said. “It’s time for desperation. And now it’s on full display all over the state of Florida. And I’m sorry to see that.”
He said that, as Florida’s governor in 2010, he vetoed legislation that would have, among other things, required an ultrasound before getting an abortion. His veto came after he left the Republican Party and was running for U.S. Senate against Marco Rubio as an independent.
“I need the people to understand he did veto a piece of legislation after he left the Republican Party not because he saw the light, but because he saw the polls,” Fried said.
As recently as 2010, during his failed bid for U.S. Senate, Crist said he would fight for “pro-life legislative efforts,” a statement that has dogged Crist during the primary. But he has time-and-time again brushed them off, saying his position has not changed.
Crist also hit back at Fried for giving a $2,000 campaign check in to Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody during Moody’s successful 2018 campaign against Democrat Sean Shaw. Moody vocally supports abortion, and earlier this month, her office asked the First District Court of Appeals to fast track the legal fight over the 15-week abortion ban by sending it directly to the Florida Supreme Court, a request that on Thursday was denied.
“Well, Nikki, it was only four years ago that you decided to support Ashley Moody, the Republican nominee for attorney general of Florida, gave her a check for $2,000 that helped defeat Sean Shaw,” Crist said.
The pair debated amid an ominous backdrop for Democrats: The party is facing midterm headwinds as President Joe Biden’s approval rating continues to dip into the low 30s and the country faces the worst inflation in 40 years. And in Florida, either Crist or Fried will face off against DeSantis, who has amassed well over $100 million in his war chest and is seen as the heavy favorite.
Before that November fight, however, Democrats must hash out what has turned into a bruising primary as Fried and her campaign are taking near daily shots at Crist over positions he held as a Republican, including while in the governor’s mansion from 2008 to 2012.
Much of her campaign has focused on casting Crist as a Republican in Democrats’ clothing, a caricature they push by rehashing many of his old position on things like abortion, criminal justice, and same sex marriage. Crist has generally shrugged off those attacks, in keeping with his reputation developed over three decades in politics as a sort of anti-knife fighter who relentlessly focused on the positive.
“After this debate, you will see that we only have one choice — the candidate who has been pro-life her whole entire life, the candidate who has never taken a single dollar from the NRA, someone who has won statewide,” Fried said. “Now, look, Charlie and I both want to make Ron DeSantis a one-term governor. But I’m the only one who can make that happen.”
Fried’s aggressive posture got her in some trouble this week when her campaign put out a digital ad reminding people Crist’s nickname in the 90s was “Chain Gang Charlie,” a reference to the fact that he supported reinstituting the policy of having prisoners wear chains as they work along highways picking up litter.
In the ad, Crist is pictured holding chains, while Fried is pictured with Women’s March Florida President Cortes Maria Lewis James, who is Black. James took issue with the ad because she has not endorsed Fried and said the picture represented her trying to “disingenuously secure Black votes.”
Fried later apologized and removed the ad.
It’s emblematic of the race to date. Fried has gone after Crist for perceived policy flip flops from his time as a Republican, but Crist has largely avoided the punches as he embraces what he believes is his front-runner status.
It’s the sort of approach Crist has taken for most of his political career. During his more than 30 years in politics, his campaign trail persona has been as a happy warrior, not a win-at-all-costs competitor, which has been the case during the 2022 primary as he clutches onto his perceived front-runner status amid an onslaught of criticism from Fried and her campaign.
He asked her during the debate to “stop tearing down your fellow Democrats” and pledged to endorse Fried if she wins the primary. Fried did not return the pledge.
Some Democrats very much still see an opening for Fried to make a move in the race, especially in the aftermath of the Roe decision. She also received praise for her performance at last weekend’s Leadership Blue summit in Tampa, the party’s annual convention, where she made the case why she should be governor to Florida’s Democrats.
“Does her strong speech give her a boost? I think Charlie has been in good shape, but she might have some momentum,” said Justin Day, a Democratic fundraiser who has raised money for, among others, the Democratic Governors Association. “I don’t know that debates move the needle that much. I think this will be decided over next month by things like TV and as everyone really focuses on their message.”
Whoever emerges from the bruising Democratic primary will face a huge challenge in the general election.
DeSantis is on a record fundraising pace and currently has $130 million in the bank between his campaign and an affiliated political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. That dwarfs the $10.8 million cash on hand that Fried and Crist have combined.
The Republican National Committee has been the lead outside group so far doing messaging in the race for Republicans, which at times has included tethering both Fried and Crist to Biden’s low approval ratings.
“While Fried and Crist argue who loves Joe Biden more, Floridians already have a real leader in the governor’s mansion,” RNC Spokeswoman Julia Friedland.
Both Fried and Crist told POLITICO in interviews last month they would welcome Biden to campaign with them during the general election, even as the president faces pushback in some segments of the Democratic party.
Crist and Fried were asked Thursday night how they plan on ending Florida Democrat’s nearly three decade absence from the governor’s mansion. Both said they can do it because DeSantis, despite his popularity, has gone too far to the political right.
“And it is serving him well politically, but it’s not serving you at all as Floridians,” Crist said.
Fried said DeSantis is vulnerable because he already has his eye on the White House, something that came into focus during the pandemic, where he re-opened the state’s economy sooner than other governors, which made him a star among national conservatives.
“He was already looking at his national aspirations,” Fried said. “He was more concerned about getting on Fox News than making sure that we are protecting the people of our state.”